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Nicole Hannel

How a Couple’s Marriage Survived Their Son’s Unexpected Diagnosis

How this mom and dad put each other’s grief ahead of their own and emerged with their relationship stronger than ever.

Jillian Benfield, a military wife and mom of three, remembers being pregnant with her second child and taking an unexpected phone call. “The doctor called,” her husband Andy said. “The test came back and it’s not good. I’m coming home.”

When they arrived at the doctor’s office, he explained there was a 99.9 percent chance that their son had Down Syndrome.

“Though we feel very differently about Down Syndrome now, that day we grieved like a death had taken place,” Jillian says. She struggled every day to get out of bed, and coped by talking it out with her mom and husband Andy. He, on the other hand, coped by processing alone. “We were equally grieved, but for the most part, we handled our grief in opposite ways. I wanted to talk, my husband did not. I researched, my husband did not.”

In Andy and Jillian’s case, the potential for marital stress or even divorce was high during this challenging time, but they clung to each other and learned some valuable things in the moment. Now, their marriage is stronger than ever.

If you and your spouse are living out a similar story, you know it’s not always easy to keep your marriage healthy when facing tough circumstances. In our conversations with Jillian and Andy, we learned some valuable lessons:

Accept Each Other’s Differences and Meet Them Halfway

“I respected that Andy wanted to talk very little,” Jillian says, “and he respected that I wanted to talk very much.” If you and your spouse are experiencing an unexpected situation, you’ll each likely need to process in your own ways. Recognize your different needs and honor them. It may not always be what you need in that moment, but choosing selflessness will prompt your partner to do the same.

Ask for What You Need

Jillian recognized that they needed different things, but she also learned to ask for what she needed from her partner. “I gave Andy his space,” she explains, “but when I felt like I would burst, I told him and he listened and processed with me.” Sadly, 79.4 percent of couples with kids feel unsatisfied with how they communicate with each other, according to data from Lasting, the nation’s leading marriage counseling app, backed by The Bump parent company. Don’t be one of them! Set time aside to discuss your needs and concerns. Use this formula that Lasting suggests: “I feel X when Y happens. I need Z.”

Carry Each Other’s Load

Once you’ve recognized your different needs and asked for your own, remember that grief strikes at unexpected times, and on a day when you’re feeling okay, your partner may be drowning. Be willing to carry the load when you notice your partner needs some extra support. “When one of us was in the pit, the other stayed above ground,” Jillian recalls. “When I had a day where I could barely put one foot in front of the other, he made my steps lighter. On those days, he managed all the household responsibilities, and I did the same for him.”

For Jillian and Andy, they kept their marriage alive and well by putting each other’s grief ahead of their own. And if you’re in the same boat, you can learn to do the same. Lasting offers tools for better communication, expectations, conflict-resolution and more, distilling data from cutting-edge research into 5-minute sessions designed to strengthen your relationship. As Jillian says, “We have hardships just like any other family, but when life gets tough, our marriage is a soft place to land.”

Published March 2019

Plus, more from The Bump:

Why a Strong Marriage Has Benefits for Baby

The Secret to a Happy Marriage When You’re Raising a Family

How Your Marriage Gets Better After Baby

PHOTO: Caleb Gaskins